Will Organic Farming Save the World?

A sentimental naïvety is no substitute for the hard calculation of costs and benefits. Organic farming on a wide scale would entail more environment destruction than it's worth.

In rich societies it’s become fashionable to promote an organic diet based on food produced without fertilizers or pesticides. By and large, organic food advocates are idealistic urban residents who want to “do something” about the environment and chemical contamination. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But they shouldn’t also claim that organic food is objectively better for either the planet or their health. That is simply not true.

Widespread adoption of an organic diet would require much larger tracts of land devoted to agriculture. Modern, intensive agriculture, on the other hand, allows high yields on smaller parcels of land. Not having to meet our food needs by farming every square centimeter of arable land means we can reserve more lands for environmental purposes.

In western Canada, both Manitoba’s Riding Mountain and Alberta’s Elk Island National Parks have potential as farmland. But modern societies can only afford to lock up these potential food-growing lands as parks because agriculture can utilize less land to meet our needs — by using all those chemicals.

Organic farming increases the soil disturbed by plowing. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that; farmers have ploughed land for millennia. They do that for two reasons, the preparation of a seedbed plus the control of weeds. As cultivated agriculture expanded throughout the world, it exploited soils that were fragile and prone to erosion, light sandy soils found on sloping land. The cultivation of these types of soils on the North American Great Plains resulted in the great dust storms of the Dirty Thirties as the exposed soils were whipped into the air by fierce Prairie winds.

Fragile soils are best left under a permanent cover of what we call “perennial plant communities,” such as grasslands. Grasslands produce forage for grazers like as cows. (We’ll leave the vegetarians out of this discussion, but what they advocate is even worse for the environment. Another time, perhaps.)

But to control weeds, organic grain production requires significantly more soil disturbance than conventional farming using herbicides. In fact, herbicide and seeding technologies have advanced to the point where “zero tillage” farming is rapidly increasing. Briefly, zero tillage uses chemicals to control weeds and sophisticated seeding equipment to plant, to the point that the only soil disturbance is the light placement of seed among the standing rows of last year’s crop stubble.

In a nutshell, zero tillage means zero soil loss. In fact, the eventual decomposition of the previous years’ crop residue actually creates soil. It’s no secret to those who’ve studied it. After having declined for the last hundred years or so, levels of organic matter in soil are finally starting to creep back up, due to the widespread adoption of zero tillage. And zero tillage is only possible with herbicides.

In terms of human health, “increasing” cancer rates are often cited as proof that we are poisoning the earth, and hence ourselves, by the widespread use of chemicals in agriculture. But they’re not increasing. They’re dropping.

To prove it, just google the Public Health Agency of Canada’s Cancer Surveillance On-Line data base. It provides cancer rates over time by geographic region, all correlated by age and sex. The data base shows that the age-standardized rate of incidence of all cancers per 100,000 Canadians was 489.02 in 1992 and 455.48 in 2003. This difference is probably not statistically significant, but note that in that 12-year period, in spite of more intensive chemical use by farmers, cancer rates dropped.

If that news isn’t good enough, even though we’re using more chemicals we’re all living longer. The March, 2006, issue of the journal Research Highlights in the Demography and Economics of Aging noted: “After remaining fairly constant for most of human history, life expectancy (the average number of years a person can expect to live) has nearly doubled in the past century.”

The reasons? Better sanitation, modern health care and better food, among other factors. Modern farming produces better, more wholesome and – much to the chagrin of growers – cheaper food than at any time in human history. Inexpensive high quality food is one of the best unpublicized social programs this country has ever had. When poor people can eat well, we are all better off.

We shouldn’t hold anything against those who choose to eat organic food. Indeed, many food companies have created thriving business units servicing this lucrative and growing market. This is what free markets do best; service a demand. But under careful examination, claims that organic food is better for your health or for the planet don’t stand up.

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